04/04/2002 12:00AM

The choice is Came Home

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Since Swaps went east in 1955 to surprise the powerful Nashua, Santa Anita Derby winners have consistently been major factors in the Kentucky Derby.

Though they didn't win the Kentucky Derby after winning here, such good ones as Hill Rise, Avatar, Sham, and Cavonnier distinguished themselves at Churchill Downs. Point Given, so impressive in winning last year's Santa Anita Derby, had an off day when he ran for the roses but atoned in the other two classics with brilliant performances.

Saturday's 65th running of the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby has several prospects for recognition in the weeks ahead, including the sensationally rapid Mayakovsky, an eye-catching winner of the recent Gotham Mile at Aqueduct, and Danthebluegrassman, winner of the Golden Gate Derby. U S S Tinosa is another with attractive credentials, but our choice is Came Home, the San Vicente and San Rafael winner. He sparkled in both appearances and has the confidence of trainer Paco Gonzalez.

"This is a very good colt," Gonzalez said at the barn this morning. "I'd rate him very close to Free House, who beat Silver Charm in the Santa Anita Derby of 1997 and was third that spring in Silver Charm's Kentucky Derby. The only question I have about him is distance. He's won at a mile in a way that makes you think he'll have no trouble with a mile and an eighth. The mile and a quarter of the Kentucky Derby could be another story, but everybody is in the same boat because they haven't tried it yet."

Came Home attracted national attention last summer when he captured Saratoga's Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes, beating Mayakovsky by two lengths. Gonzalez was prepared to run him next in the Norfolk Stakes at Oak Tree when Came Home twisted an ankle the day before the race.

"He lost the prep race he needed," Gonzalez notes. "He also lost 10 days of training while the ankle came around. His entire fall schedule was off-key, and we had to rush to make the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. We drew the outside and Came Home got caught up in a speed duel with Officer. Neither had much to offer in the stretch run."

That was the only blot on Came Home's copy book, which reads six starts, five wins. He is by the highly successful Gone West out of Nice Assay, a stakes-winner of some $400,000 and the dam of stakes-winner A.P. Assay, who raced seven furlongs in 1:20.80. No wonder Will Farish wants to stand him at stud and purchased half of him from breeders John Toffan and Trudy McCaffery, in partnership with a friend from Texas, John Goodman.

Mayakovsky, who set a track record for 5 1/2 furlongs in his debut at Saratoga last season, is expected to set the pace in the Santa Anita Derby.

"We expect to be stalking with Came Home," Gonzalez said. "At one time he was inclined to be a bit rank but he has learned to relax. Chris McCarron, who rides him, says he handles beautifully. He is very much the complete professional in everything he does."

So is the trainer, who spends a great deal of time with his horses. Gonzalez's record in Triple Crown competition is exceptional. He developed Mane Minister for McCaffery and Toffan and saddled that colt to finish third in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, as well as the Kentucky Derby of 1991. Free House was a rousing second in the Preakness of 1997, to go with his thirds in the Derby and Belmont Stakes.

Will Came Home add to the luster of this record? History tells us the Santa Anita Derby will provide the answer.